Case 8: No accounting for over-confidence

IMG_2841This post is number eight in my series looking at cases where it seems that “believing we are right” has led to bad outcomes, sometimes even spectacularly bad results, for leaders, teams and organizations.

For my upcoming book, Big Decisions: Why we make decisions that matter so poorly. How we can make them better, I have identified and categorized nearly 350 mental traps and errors that lead us into making bad decisions. The many high-profile situations that I have examined demonstrate the bad outcomes that can be produced by mental traps and errors. My premise is that, at the least, if we recognize and admit that we don’t know the answer, we will put more effort into looking for better decision options and limiting the risks stemming from failure when making important decisions.

In this case, we see that even a leader of a staid professional firm can be trapped by very human responses in exceptional moments.


PricewaterhouseCoopers’ partner and accountant Brian Cullinan believed that he and his associate were well prepared to properly dole out the envelopes with winners’ names to presenters at the 2017 Oscars ceremony.

Cullinan made the biggest Oscar award mistake ever by handing presenter Warren Beatty the wrong envelope. Beatty’s on-stage partner, Faye Dunaway, announced “La La Land” was the winner when “Moonlight” was actually the best picture winner. The upshot is that PwC’s plum 83-year assignment as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ accountant is in jeopardy and Cullinan’s reputation is trashed.

The accounting firm partner was likely entrapped by many mental errors and biases, with these being among the most obvious:

  • Cullinan was cocksure that the awards process would come off with out a glitch: People Magazine reports that he said before the Oscars broadcast, “We’ve done this a few times, and we prepare a lot.” His overconfidence was was surely rooted in his Illusion of Control (the tendency to overestimate how much we influence external events, leading to us take actions that we believe will be effective when they will not be).
  • Tweeting from backstage a photo of Emma Stone holding her Best Actress Oscar, right before the winning picture announcement, rather than paying attention to his duties, showed Cullinan’s Impulsivity (choosing an immediately gratifying option at the cost of long-term happiness). The self-destructive nature of this action is amplified by hearing the allegation that Cullinan had been told by the Motion Picture Academy not to use social media during the ceremony.
  • Cullinan’s belief that no mistake would mar PwC’s handing of the Oscar winners’ envelopes was surely in part a result of the Overconfidence Effect (individuals’ tendency to overestimate their ability to predict future events).

Working for a big-name firm and having a big title does not protect one from biases and traps. Indeed, it can lead to overlooking evidence and both rash action and stultifying inaction.